Confessional Comics: Part 1 of 4
If literature is considered fictional prose of superior or lasting artistic merit, the kind of creative work that you can read more than once and still enjoy, then “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” qualifies not just as the first instance of comics autobiography, but also as one of the original greats of graphic literature.
This is not just because the story is intellectually, imaginatively and emotionally engaging, but also because Binky Brown, originally published in 1972, remains highly unorthodox, even by today’s standards. How many comics have you read with a protagonist who agonizes over the belief that ill will is being caused by rays emitting from his penis and fingers, the latter of which also assume the form of phalluses? In my books, one of the only comics that rivals “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” for sheer eccentricity is Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown, in which “…the bizarre misfortunes of the title character include being chased by cannibalistic pygmies and having the tip of his penis replaced by the head of a miniature, talking Ronald Reagan from another universe” (“Ed the Happy Clown.” Wikipedia). In spite of this fierce competition, Justin Green remains the originator of the confessional comic, an illustrious title that will no doubt endure throughout the annals of history.
Make no mistake of it: Binky Brown is a serious psychosexual journey, a victory of id over superego, a subversion of the censor. Binky’s tale is an afflicted parable of male torment, by none other than our old friend (or maybe your enemy) the phallus. Between the covers of “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” a veritable Hall of Shame unfolds, in which Brown atones for years of religiously induced self-reproach and delusion. As if this were not enough, the comic serves also as one man’s testament to the stranglehold that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) held over his life long into adulthood.
In “Symptoms of Disorder/Signs of Genius,” the introduction to Justin Green’s Binky Brown Sampler (Last Gasp, 1995) Art Spiegelman remarks that Green “…Profoundly changed the history of comix….Justin turned comic books into intimate secular confession booths (4).”
Spiegelman attributes the realization of Maus in large part to Justin Green’s encouragement. In commentary accompanying the exhibit Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art, Justin Green is said to acknowledge Robert Crumb as the first artist to create autobiographical comics. Seth and Art Spiegelman, curators involved in the exhibit, mention that Crumb adamantly insists that Justin Green is the originator of the form.
Some may criticize those artists who wear their neuroses on their proverbial sleeves—fuelling their creative endeavours with one unadulterated dark moment of the soul after the next—for their narcissism. In “A Confession to my Readers,” the introductory page to “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” Green provides the rationale behind creating his work: the aspiration that others may benefit from the author’s insights into his tormented psyche, through identifying with Binky’s neurotic plight and recognizing that they are not alone. For this reason and no other, in spite of its historical import, The Binky Brown Sampler should be in the “graphic novel” section of every mainstream bookstore in America.
Though the themes in “autobiographical narrative comics,” (as Green himself has described the genre) are unwaveringly personal, the stories recounted in confessional comics are consistently elevated to the level of craft. This is illustrated writing—complex storytelling recounted through the visceral combination of words and image. To successfully deliver one’s life story means to succinctly combine the loose strands of memory, raw emotion and factual information into a unified, and thoroughly contemplated vision.
Binky Brown volumes available through Last Gasp Books